By Jennifer Geiger on February 1, 2012
Historically, tiny cars haven't found much success here in "bigger-is-better" America. Change is afoot, however, as more micro cars hit U.S. streets. Smart's ForTwo may have been a flop, but Fiat's 500 is gaining some traction in the market here despite a weak debut. Is the U.S. ready to go smaller and is Volkswagen the brand to help us do it?
One appealing new model that just went on sale in Europe is the Volkswagen Up! Its tiny 139.2-inch footprint and too-cute styling could make it a hit with young city drivers. It joins like-sized competitors the Ford Ka, Fiat Panda and Hyundai i10 in Europe. Reviews from across the pond are favorable, but VW doesn't plan on selling it here. Is there a market for the Up! in the U.S.?
The tall-body two-door hatch just went on sale in Europe last month and a four-door version was just announced. It uses a tiny 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that makes 60 or 75 horsepower depending on the version; a five-speed manual transmission is standard. It might be tough for U.S. drivers to get past its pokiness: VW says the 60-hp version does zero to 60 mph in 13.6 seconds and the 75-hp model gets there in 12.4 seconds. Swapping it out for the brand's popular, peppy 2.0-liter four-cylinder could solve that problem.
Fewer cylinders and less horsepower than we're accustomed to make for impressive fuel economy, though. Volkswagen says the Up! should see a combined fuel economy of 56 mpg (based on New European Driving Cycle standards). The car's standard engine start/stop system also helps with those numbers.
Another feature that could win over safety-conscious U.S. drivers is the Up!'s City Emergency Braking system. At speeds lower than 18 mph, it automatically brakes the car before a crash.
Alternative-fuel variants should also appeal: Volkswagen plans to add an electric Up! to the lineup in 2013; a natural- gas version will be available, too.
But how much does it cost? Well, in Europe, the four-door version will start at 10,800 euro when it goes on sale this spring. That's about $14,000 in the U.S. The two-door version is a bit cheaper. That's not too bad considering a 2012 Fiat 500 starts at $15,500.
It's not that cut-and-dried, however. VW will have to spend more on the Up! to make sure it meets U.S. safety and emissions standards. Then there's the added cost of shipping it here. VW's avoiding those costs with other vehicles in the U.S. by building them here, but the Up! is made in Slovakia. Getting it here will certainly add to the bottom line.
Is the Up! good enough to shake up the U.S.'s subcompact car market? We may never know. It isn't likely Volkswagen will offer it for sale here, but maybe it should. Would you buy it?
Assistant Managing Editor Jennifer Geiger is a reviewer, car-seat technician and mom of three. She wears a lot of hats, many of them while driving a minivan. Email Jennifer